A good friend recently posted this set of questions in a Facebook group: “How do relate to your life? Is it an adventure? A business? A game? A hobby? A vacation? A challenge? A roller coaster? A movie? A jail? A laboratory? A gift? Something else?” – Rachel Shanken of MindBodyWise
My answer was long enough to constitute a blog post and there’s one story from my life which popped into my head as soon as I read the question; my fishing boat experience. I’ve mostly related to my life as an adventure, and sometimes maybe even to a fault. A lot of you probably know about my sabbatical rock climbing year with my husband Jay before we were married 2007-2008, which says a lot about me, but another adventure that I haven’t shared much about was my 60+ days on two different fishing boats in the Bering Sea, Alaska.
When I was 22 and had just graduated from The Ohio State University all I wanted to do was take a year off school (before Chiropractic college) and be a ski bum in Breckenridge, Colorado. I didn’t quite have the funds to do it and I found myself in the career office trying a find a way to generate some income. I found a flyer calling for biologists to work for a company called “Alaskan Observers” and was hooked.
It sounded so amazingly adventurous and lucrative! How could I not go work as a field biologist on a boat in Alaska?
I sent my application. I interviewed over the phone. I got the job! I gave up tickets to Phish on my 22nd birthday to fly to Seattle for training at the NOAA facility there. I lived in housing close to the University of Washington and biked all over checking out a new city and tasting new beers with a bunch of kids close to my age. I had training at the NOAA facility which has a beautiful campus and the original sound garden for which the band was named. I looked at a lot of pickled fish.
I learned how to species identify fish using a taxonomic key and how to length, weigh, and sex fish accurately. I learned about safety on a huge factory processor in the middle of the Bering Sea and even dressed up in my “Gumby suit” and jumped in the frigid water for a swim. I passed my fish test, and it was time to go. I was nervous, but more excited than anything.
It was a new adventure that, to this point, felt pretty academic and nerdy. Let the adventure begin!
I boarded my flight to Anchorage then flew fairly quickly from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor and was aboard the Elizabeth Ann before I knew it. I don’t remember clearly, but I feel like we took off either early morning or late at night, but when I woke up I couldn’t see land and I didn’t again for three weeks when we came in for our first offload. Was I ever seasick that first day! I made the mistake of eating some chocolate ice cream and realized that sugar makes seasickness even worse (you’d think I’d have taste aversion to chocolate now, but no). My first boat was 220 foot factory processor and had about 80 people on board. I was one of 7 or 8 women. Thankfully, since there were so few women, I shared a 6 bedroom (maybe eight feet by ten feet with beds stacked three high) with a tiny private bathroom with the few other processor ladies. Trust me, this was luxury compared to the men!
I had a good amount of time that first day before I had work to do, so I got to know some of my fellow shipmates. “Junior”, the 300+ pound Samoan deckhand. Karl, the misogynistic factory manager that made my job even less fun than it already was. Fred, the sweet engineer who welded me a pencil holder and didn’t speak much English. Erik, my saving grace, a recent graduate of college and the “sorter” on the boat (also a solid Midwestern guy). The random guy with dreads who chain smoked and spent an “entire year naked” in a nudist colony. Let me tell you, there were some characters on that boat.
Day one lesson: nothing smells worse than dead fish or cigarette smoke than the two mixed together. Ugh!
Once the work began, it became very clear that I was “the government agent” on the boat and I was not part of the team. As an observer I was hired by an individual company that contracts with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Elizabeth Ann was fishing for Pollock and it was my job to collect data that would help end the season. Everyone on board is making money as long as the season is open, so they don’t necessarily want my work to get done.
I essentially counted, weighed, and sexed TONS of fish all hours of the day.
My station. Gotta love baskets of dead pollock.
The empty net
When a net came up I would measure it to estimate the total weight, then I would sample from that net and extrapolate the data and send it back to NMFS. They compiled data from all the boats and therefore could shut the season down when appropriate. The real bummer of a trawling factory processor is that when they bring the net up a lot of the fish/marine life are still alive, but they dump the net into tanks on the boat and let it sit for several hours because that way the Pollock are stiffer and go through the machines more easily. That means that everything coming out of those tanks and onto Erik’s sorting table is DEAD. Including all the king crab, halibut, herring, cod, and salmon that have their own fisheries and must be thrown back. We also had the sad pleasure of catching not one but two marine mammals while I was on that boat.
Erik on the sorting table.
Keep in mind I was a 22-year-old blond girl from Ohio on a fishing boat in the middle of the Bering Sea with a ton of salty men. I had a great Captain and a woman in the higher ranks that helped me to stay sane, but I really couldn’t have made it without Erik, the boat’s sorter. He and I worked hand in hand because I needed him to help me do my job. It was so great that he was the same age as me, had a degree from the Pittsburgh Art Institute (which I grew up close to and had a huge respect for), and was fairly “normal” and extremely sweet. There was a lot of inadvertent pressure and passive aggressive attitudes toward me which I was probably naïve enough not to catch onto at first. The reality of that hit hard when we caught an endangered Stellar Sea lion in one of our nets and it was dumped overboard before I was able to get the data I needed to do my job.
I ended up spending just under two months on the first boat and then I went back out on a Cod boat for a week with a crew of just 4 men. The cod boat was a pot boat (like the crab pots you may have seen on the tv show the Deadliest Catch). It was so great to be able to see the Aleutian Islands the whole time I was on that boat, and the scenery was awe inspiring to say the least. For some reason I chose to stay up one night and watch the movie Titanic whilst on that boat in the Bering Sea… ??
Is there a point to this story? Maybe not a huge point, maybe just to share this piece of me with you and the fact that I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot about the people I want to surround myself with (as well as people I don’t), and the way I want to treat people (thought I am not always succeeding and it’s always a work in progress). I saw whales. I learned a ton about fish and the fishing industry. I thought I would love the seasonal lifestyle of making decent money for a while and then moving around and traveling or working other seasonal jobs, but I didn’t love that aspect at all. I realized that I like roots more than I thought I did. This job was an adventure to get me to Colorado and it served its purpose as such. It was an adventure in learning about fish as much as about life. It was an area outside my comfort zone which is a ripe area for learning. What are you doing to get outside your comfort zone lately, and (possibly more importantly) who are you doing it with?